11. September 2018 | Interview
IT’S ABOUT LOVING SOMETHING
At the age of 23, Aurel Bacs applied for a job as a watch expert at a famous auction house. His professional experience left a lot to be desired: he had nothing but a passion for rare watches. He got the job despite this – or maybe exactly because of this. Today, Bacs is the best auctioneer in the world, turning over record sales of vintage watches. An interview with a man who has kept his feet firmly on the ground in spite of all his major success.
The sought-after watch expert and his team work in an unassuming building with equally modest offices, a fitting location for the start-up company founded by Bacs and his wife back in 2014. Piles of watch catalogues sit stacked up on the desks in the communal office shared by two employees and Bacs’s wife. The auctioneer and his assistant work in a small office next door. There is no luxury to be found here – a refreshing juxtaposition.
Mr Bacs, you make millions in sales of your vintage watches at auction. What’s the secret to your success?
I think if you have a passion for something, be it sport, playing chess, gardening or watches, you are head and shoulders above those who see it as no more than a job. Offering your customers beautiful auctions, great catalogues, rare watches and excellent results is almost like a machine that constantly reinvents itself – ever-changing. What’s more, we now know which watches sell well and which ones don’t. As long as I only take on watches for auction that I know to be popular among collectors, I know I will achieve great results and high sales quotas.
How do you know that?
When you spend almost 35 years doing nothing else but thinking of watches, spending anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day in contact with dozens of collectors and when you’ve got the watch bug yourself, then you can’t help but know what customers want. It’s not routine, it’s a feeling.
Do you ever worry about failing to sell your goods at auction?
I’m not the worrying type. But if you’re too sure of something and aren’t afraid of failing, then you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. That’s why I’m always nervous at auction because there’s always something that could go wrong.
Can you give me an example?
We don’t manufacture any products ourselves. In this respect, we are dependent on what customers offer us and what they need. They might say, “There’s nothing here today that interests me.” This in itself makes an auctioneer nervous, because he hasn’t managed to satisfy his customers’ tastes. But external factors, over which we have no control, also play a role. That includes, for instance, terrorist attacks. If a plane were to fly into the World Trade Center the day before my auction – and that did actually happen – then it wouldn’t matter if I were to offer the most beautiful watches in the world. People lost relatives and had more important things to think about than watches. Those are factors that have even more influence today than they did in 2011. The world has become generally more unstable and nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. But I’m not the kind of person that worries about the future and gets caught up in worst-case scenarios.
“I’m not the worrying type. But if you’re too sure of something and aren’t afraid of failing, then you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
What’s the biggest flop you’ve ever experienced?
There have been a number of flops. Some of these have included not selling watches because the pictures in the catalogue didn’t look good. A good friend of mine, Jean-Claude Biver, once said: you don’t learn from your successes, you learn from your failures. Making mistakes shouldn’t be taboo. A fear of making mistakes robs you of the courage it takes to blaze new trails.
Auctioneering is not a profession that can be learned.
I would agree with that, there’s no theoretical training for it. As a teenager, I accompanied my father – a passionate watch collector – to watch fairs, flea markets and auctions. At that time, I had no idea that I would later turn this hobby into my job. I studied at the University of St.Gallen before later studying law and economics in Zurich. Half a year before graduation, I happened to come across an advertisement for a job at an auction house in a watch magazine. It was looking for a specialist for its watch department in Geneva. I was 23 at the time, had zero professional experience and a great passion for beautiful watches. At first, they thought my application was a joke, but after several interviews and tests, I got the job.
“At first, they thought my application was a joke, but after several interviews and tests, I got the job.”
So you’ve never regretted this change of career?
Yes, at the beginning I did. I was young and a nobody in an industry that values experience and seniority above all else. All of my contemporaries with whom I attended university got great jobs afterwards. They all had a job title, a top salary and a fancy car. My job was not well paid at all. I had also completely underestimated the complexity of this new role. And my first auctions were anything but successful. But that changed after a few years. When I was 28, I sold a watch for one million Swiss francs. That was an indescribable feeling. My colleagues patted me on the back, customers suddenly started taking me seriously and I got a bonus. What started out as being very frustrating transformed into something truly thrilling.
In 2014, you purchased the Henry Graves pocket watch – the Holy Grail of watches – at auction for more than 23 million Swiss francs on behalf of a collector. While undoubtedly a special piece, is that not an awful lot of money for a watch?
I asked myself that same question. One million Swiss francs is a lot of money, and 23 million is absolutely crazy. But how much does the most expensive Ferrari cost? 50 million? So, a frequently produced car, not a unique edition, costs twice as much. What’s the highest a picture sells for? 150 million? 180 million? For an oil-colour painting on a canvas. It took five years to produce the Henry Graves pocket watch you’re talking about. In this respect, this watch is, relatively speaking, quite cheap. The situation on the market is very complex today. For that reason, I cannot say whether or not the watch is worth more today. But the new owner and I can sleep easy knowing that it was relatively cheap in comparison to objects in other collector’s segments.
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